If you are sick of hearing about it, now is the time to stand up and do something. For years, inspired by films such as Red Gold and increasing articles in media, anglers around the country have asked what they can do to help protect Bristol Bay from the likes of Pebble Mine. The answer has generally been as anticlimactic as “sign up for info,” or “sign this generic letter to your elected officials.”
Well, the tide has changed.
Two weeks ago, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a document assessing the risks to Bristol Bay posed by the colossal Pebble Mine. Their findings are not all that surprising when you consider the mine’s potential magnitude. In short, even at small scales and without some major failure, Pebble will significantly impact water flow, cause major habitat reduction, and potentially expose fish populations to acid mine drainage or metals leaching into the water.
Along with some elected Alaska officials, the Pebble Partnership repeatedly insists we should rush to judge the project until we see an official plan. But the EPA watershed assessment makes it quite clear that there are only so many ways to skin this particular game. From the mining company’s own records, we know where the deposit is; we know what the geochemical makeup of the deposit is (i.e., whether it will cause acid mine drainage – Yes!); and more. In short, we know enough to make an educated decision.
We have a good understanding of the watershed’s current state. Even Pebble’s own data reveals that this is a complex hydrologic system with significant ground to surface water flows, groundwater that spawning and rearing salmon depend upon, and cold, clean water with little ability to buffer against potential metals or acid leaching from the mining process.
More importantly we know that that the deposit is located smack in the middle of crucial headwaters habitat necessary for sustaining the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery, as well as resident populations of legendary sized rainbows.
Pebble’s preliminary reports also show that this would be, if built to full capacity, North America’s largest open pit mine with tailings facilities and water treatment facilities needing permanent management. Let me repeat – forever.
With that in mind, EPA’s Watershed Assessment states that the mine’s waste and facilities will need to last well beyond any historical reality we can fathom. Mines outlast states and governments. They outlast us all. That is troubling in the context of a fishery that has provided for Alaska natives for more generations than most of us can grasp.
In sum, the Watershed Assessment lays out what we all reasonably expect: Pebble Mine will have unacceptable adverse risks to one of the world’s largest and most diverse coldwater fisheries.
Alaskans don’t generally care much for federal intrusion. But it is important in this case to remember a few things. Polling shows that over 50% of the state opposes the mine. Locally, 80% of the Bristol Bay region opposes Pebble. Let’s be clear, then, the work of EPA is by invitation.
In May of 2010, a broad cross-section of disparate groups formally asked the EPA to use its authority under the Clean Water Act to protect Bristol Bay from unacceptable adverse impacts potentially caused by large scale mines like Pebble. These groups included: eight tribes of the region, Bristol Bay Native Association, Bristol Bay Native Corporation, every Alaska commercial fishing organization, sportfishing organizations and industry leaders, as well as a growing list of other interests.
The Watershed Assessment is the first step in the collaborative work to protect Bristol Bay. This week, EPA begins a series of hearings – from Seattle and Anchorage to communities in Bristol Bay – on the matter. If you can attend those meetings, please do so. Show your visual support for EPA and testify if you can.
More importantly, no matter where you are in the country, you can lend your voice to the fight. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never fished there or if you are a scientist or not. Please go to Save Bristol Bay website and send a letter to the EPA during the public comment period. Doing so, you will add your voice to the reasonable request that Bristol Bay be protected for future generations of Alaska Natives, commercial fishermen, sport anglers, and any others who value clean water and wild salmon.
Written by Samuel Snyder, PhD
Director Bristol Bay Watershed and Fisheries Protection Campaign